Review: ‘Local Girls’ at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia

Diskit (Anna Zaida Szapiro) is a high-school junior and a wiz at chemistry; Riley (Mary Tuomanen) is a senior in a heavy metal band who is failing her chemistry class. When Diskit (“It’s a family name”) is assigned to tutor Riley (“languishing in a cage of sloth”), they laughably affect the all-too-familiar antipathy between ‘the nerds’ and ‘the cool kids.’ But when Riley needs a replacement screamer for her band, she inadvertently discovers Diskit’s potential and tutors her in the art of becoming a rock star, by eliciting an uproarious rave about her mother’s cats. As they slowly let down their defenses, open up, and listen to one another (“That’s deep”), they begin to develop an unlikely friendship, join forces to compete in a local Battle of the Bands, and come to recognize that they have more in common than they thought.

Anna Zaida Szapiro and Mary Tuomanen. Photo by Johanna Austin.
Anna Zaida Szapiro and Mary Tuomanen. Photo by Johanna Austin.

Azuka Theatre’s world premiere of Local Girls, the latest work from emerging Philadelphia playwright Emma Goidel, brings a youthful perspective to the stage in a funny, charming, and sensitive reflection on the challenges of being a teenager and feeling like an outcast, both at school and at home. And while this self-described “scream rock fantasia” should hold a special appeal for young audiences, everyone of any age can remember and relive what it was like to grow up in the often stressful and always ridiculous environment of clashing high-school factions.

Szapiro and Tuomanen are perfectly cast as the girls, capturing their juvenile personalities, spot-on in their comic timing and facial expressions, evincing the anguish and insecurities that drive their behavior and conflicts, and ultimately revealing their similarities–both are passionate about what they do, both are determined to succeed in the life they’ve chosen, and both dream of getting out of small-town Georgia to escape their troubling backstories.

Tabitha Allen and Jahzeer Terrell deliver amusing characterizations as their bandmates Shanice and Roe, and perform live original music by Sound Designer Robert Kaplowitz, while Sam Henderson brings understated wit, wisdom, and maturity to Diskit’s dad Francis–a depressed failed musician, but a devoted single father who chooses to be there for his uncommunicative daughter, deeply hurt by her mother’s departure.

Director Allison Heishman beautifully balances the story’s humor with the girls’ growing pains, their sense of isolation with the need for friendship, understanding, and support, and the urgency of youth with the necessity for time, patience, and experience (Francis notes that even The Beatles weren’t an overnight success).

Jahzeer Terrell, Mary Tuomanen, Anna Zaida Szapiro, and Tabitha Allen. Photo by Johanna Austin.
Jahzeer Terrell, Mary Tuomanen, Anna Zaida Szapiro, and Tabitha Allen. Photo by Johanna Austin.

A simple set by Lindsey B. Mayer and costumes by Jamie Grace-Duff effectively distinguish between the two lead characters, their situations and aspirations (Diskit’s clueless rock-star attire and make-up are especially hilarious).

Well-executed ensemble-devised movement-based sequences, choreographed by Goidel, Tuomanen, Szapiro, Allen, and Terrell, sometimes disrupt the natural flow of the narrative, but others successfully create a mood of adolescent fantasy and the aura of a rock concert, supported by Andrew J. Cowles’ evocative lighting.

For those who want to live out their own rock-n-roll fantasy, Azuka offers the opportunity to play Rock Band 3 in the lobby an hour before each performance, so come early to Local Girls and get your rock star on!

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

12733526_10154027081486037_2109222074943414528_n

Local Girls plays through Sunday, March 13, 2016, at Azuka Theatre, performing at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake – 1512 Spruce Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 563-1100, or purchase them online